Pita Hoarding and the Environmental Booze Hounds

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 20

Despite a bundle of new work duties and a persistent head cold, nothing could keep me from this month's Four Courses. There are always so many wonderful food topics to explore, and this month, we tackle some of the yummiest. Hows about you wander over to our site and take a listen to Episode 20?

Topics include Olympia, an unhealthy obsession with pickles, our go-to selections when it comes to bread, and the trend of rapidly-disappearing cork in favor of wine bottles with twist-off caps. We also welcome our guest host Tiffany Greenwood, who finally lends a much-needed female voice to what's been a total dude fest until now. Enjoy!

Roll the Bones

The great majority of Games entries on this blog are video games, and for good reason. It's just easier to load up a game on the computer or XBox than it is to throw together a board game night with friends. Those game nights are awfully fun, though, and I've been fortunate enough to fall into a fairly regular one. It's a nerdy bunch (a label I apply with love), so the games tend towards the Settlers of Catan variety, though Cards Against Humanity has been known to pop up, too.

Nerdy games can get pretty complicated, and Eldritch Horror is no exception. As a matter of fact, the first time we broke it out to play it, it took the entire first evening just to try and understand the rules. Once those were nailed down, the second playthrough went much more smoothly. Eldritch Horror is nifty in that it's cooperative; all the players work together against the game, which throws all sorts of Lovecraftian monsters up as obstacles. Each player is represented by an "investigator", all of whom have different strengths and weaknesses. Investigators travel around the globe, encountering creatures to defeat, spells/items to deploy, and portals to seal.

One of the things I like best about this game is just how well-written it is, which is a strange thing to say. I've played similar games that just give little blurbs about the people you're playing as and the challenges you're facing, but it's obvious that a lot more thought went into this one. Every person has a backstory written on their investigator card, as well as an epilogue if things don't go your way. Each of the obstacles you face on the map is given a short little story about the enemies and allies you're interacting with, making the game feel like an actual adventure, rather than just a series of decisions to make.

If you don't like complexity, though, this is decidedly not for you. There are approximately ten million cards and tokens to keep track of. The rules are intricate and need to be consulted often. There is an irritating imbalance in the investigator powers, meaning that some should always be chosen and some should always be avoided. Overall, though, my friends and I are having a great time with this game, and if you like nerding out, I'd definitely recommend it.

Eldritch Horror: B+

Mars Attacks

Matt Damon sure needs rescuing a lot, huh? Besides being the titular rescuee in Saving Private Ryan, he was the focus of an involved pick-up mission in Interstellar, too. And here we are again, sending a team of experts to go get him in The Martian. Stop getting left behind, Matt Damon!

The Martian, based on Andy Weir's 2014 novel, is about a team of astronauts, led by Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) exploring the surface of Mars. When a sudden, violent dust storm sends them scrambling back to their ship, they mistakenly believe that botanist Mark Watney (Damon) has been killed in the chaos, and leave without him. The story then splits into two main threads: Watney's plan to remain alive long enough for the next manned mission to come pick him up, and Earth-bound scientists' attempts to rescue him before his supplies give out.

Normally, I kick off these reviews with the things I liked before I get to any nitpicks I might have. I'm going to flip it in this case, because there's really not a lot to criticize. There are a few too many characters. Not in the sense that the story is too difficult for an audience to follow - it's just that a couple of people wind up standing around with nothing much to contribute. There's a running bit about Watney hating the music that Lewis has left behind that is not as funny as they think it is. I saw it in 3D, which was probably unnecessary. The dust storm looked great, but I wouldn't have missed much else if I had gone to a 2D screening.

That's about it for complaints! Pretty minor, right? The rest of it was extremely cool. I've seen a term bandied about regarding movies like this: Competence Porn. That may be a crude way of putting it, but I really love the themes it implies. In most movies, goals are accomplished by renegades and mavericks and lone wolves. Even when people work together, they're generally operating outside "The System". Competence Porn movies, on the other hand, celebrate intelligence and people working at their best under difficult circumstances and rules. No cowboy is going to sweep in and save the day here. It takes rigorous scientific application to get the job done. The only bad guy is circumstance, and audiences don't get to see enough movies with that premise. The last movie I can think of to convey the shockingly rare idea that people can think their way out of a problem was Contagion. Hey! Another Damon-in-peril movie!

There are action setpieces, too, but I'm glad they take a backseat to the plot. All the settings, be they an explosive decompression or a quiet monologue about potatoes, are shot gorgeously, and make you feel like Watney really is trapped on Mars itself. All in all, it was a really nifty film. A combination of terrific cinematography, solid acting, and a fantastic story have made this one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

The Martian: A-

All Over the Map

Life has been busy over this past month, but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading! After all, I still have my train ride to and from work, and of course, there's whatever tome is resting on the nightstand to ease me into Dreamland. I'm working through an incredibly lengthy library book right now, but in the meantime, here's a good opportunity to talk about the other books I've read lately. I'm on a run of novels, so it looks like I'll have to pick up a non-fiction soon.

First up is Andrew Smith's new book, The Alex Crow. You'll remember that Smith's Grasshopper Jungle was my favorite book of 2014, so I'm pretty much immediately on-board for anything he publishes these days. The Alex Crow wasn't quite the high point that Grasshopper Jungle was, but it was still an interesting read. It's tough to describe the plot, since it interweaves a lot of disparate elements, from war refugees to mind control to the horrors of summer camp to countless masturbation euphemisms. It'd be extremely easy for a book like this to run completely off the rails, but it never does. Everything comes together to tell one cohesive story, albeit a deeply weird one. It defies description, though, so if you're as big a fan of Smith's work as I am, by all means, check it out.

Next was Kate Kae Myers' 2015 book, Inherit Midnight, which may as well have come with the subtitle "A Book With a Premise Specifically Tailored to Andy's Tastes". It's like The Westing Game and The Amazing Race had a baby. Awesome, right? Unfortunately, premise doesn't mean much if the execution is off, and I'm sorry to say... The execution is off. It start off fine, as seventeen-year-old Avery makes a daring escape from the boarding school she hates. Her prim, disapproving grandmother has sent her there, but Avery is brought back to the familial mansion along with the snobbish relatives who detest her for a surprising meeting. Her grandmother has set a test to determine who the worthiest person is to inherit her vast estate. The heirs are sent on a worldwide competition that tests their skills, and along the way, Avery discovers new things about her family and - as legally required of all YA female protagonists these days - finds romance as well.

I should have loved this book, but it was woefully contrived. And before you yell at me that OF COURSE a fictional book about a worldwide adventure competition is contrived, what I mean by that is nothing happens naturally. Relatives are mean to Avery until the plot demands that they're understanding. An ally becomes a boyfriend in the span of two seconds, before the young man has any time to know anything about her personality. If there's anything more disappointing than a bad book, it's a book that had the potential to be great, but fumbles it.

I didn't have to worry about bad writing when it came to David Nicholls' 2014 novel, Us. I liked One Day a lot, so I was looking forward to this book about a man who uses the opportunity of a family vacation to attempt to connect with his distant teenage son and to repair his weakening marriage. The story also flashes back to happier days and to the idyllic relationship that the narrator aches to recover. There's a lot to like about this book; Nicholls is able to make the problems of affluent white people a lot more palatable than someone like Jonathan Franzen. By the same token, though, this book appears to want to stress the importance of cherishing life's good moments while you have them, but winds up validating my choice to never, ever have children. The narrator's good intentions are stymied at every turn by a wife and son who come off as egocentric and selfish, which I'm pretty sure is not supposed to be the takeaway. It was worth the read, but it ultimately wound up depressing me a little bit.

For family turmoil done right, turn to Angela Flournoy's 2015 novel The Turner House. This one also skips in time, but rather than an upper-middle class family traipsing across Europe, this book deals with the Turners, a struggling African-American family with 13 children, growing up in a crumbling Detroit. The book avoids the issue of spreading itself too thin by focusing on just a handful of the kids and the emotional baggage that comes along with an ill, aging parent, unhelpful siblings, and a sackful of money problems. This was a remarkable book, and is the rare novel that really succeeds at being transportive. I haven't read something that was so good at making me feel I was actually in the book's universe since The Night Circus.

Finally, it was time for something a little more frightening, and what is scarier than the hysteria that can take over an entire community? In Megan Abbott's The Fever (2014), a student named Deenie is understandably concerned when her best friend Lise suffers a seizure in the middle of class. The remainder of the student body (and their parents) are more interested in gossip and rumor-mongering than Lise's condition, and when a second girl suffers a similar attack, the school community erupts. The sickness only seems to affect the girls, and various causes are blamed from lake water to vaccines. No amount of logical rationale is enough to soothe angry parents, as panic spreads like wildfire. The book is a little flat, but makes a lot of smart choices about how its characters respond to the sweeping sickness and what that says about modern society.

The Alex Crow: B
Inherit Midnight: C+
Us: B-
The Turner House: A-
The Fever: B

Fall Television 2015

Normally, the charts and spreadsheets and guides surrounding the fall TV season would consume me. I'd pore over magazines and websites, planning out the perfect schedule to maximize the number of shows I'm able to keep up with. Unfortunately, this year, I have to take a more surface-level look at the fall schedule. It's not that there aren't a number of shows that have grabbed my interest. But a combination of a new position at the lab, keeping up with podcast work, and attempting to maintain some sort of social life has led to less time to laze around watching TV. I know, I have the most difficult life ever. Pity me!


Sunday contains two of my beloved B-shows, so obviously, I'll be signing on for Bob's Burgers (Season 6) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 3). Clearly, football is going to screw with the scheduling, so I should mention that for most of the shows I mention in this post, I'll be streaming them after they air. Both of these shows have already begun their new seasons, and they're both off to a great start.

The only new Sunday show to catch my interest is Quantico, which has been heavily hyped. That normally means the show is pretty terrible, but that's not always the case (see Tuesday). The show centers around a class of FBI recruits who become the main suspects in a terrorist attack. If I'm able to carve out enough free time, I'll check it out, but the fact that it's attracted the nickname "Grey's Academy" does not inspire confidence.


I wasn't alive when the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman premiered, so I've never gotten to enjoy a good female-led superhero show (Yes, I'm aware of that Bionic Woman attempt a while back - I said a GOOD show). I have no idea if the new show Supergirl will work or not, but it's at least worth checking out.


So, I just mentioned that over-hyped shows tend to be the worst, but the show I've seen the second-most hype for is The Grinder, and the pilot episode was...pretty good, actually! (For the curious, the most-hyped show is Grandfathered, and not even my love of Paget Brewster has managed to get me invested in that one.) The Grinder stars Fred Savage as a small-town lawyer with zero charisma, and his TV star brother (Rob Lowe), whose show about lawyers just ended and is looking for his next great act. He comes home and begins to assist his reluctant brother in real life cases, and while this show could easy be grating and obnoxious, I decided to watch the first episode, and was pleasantly surprised. I wouldn't call it appointment television just yet, but for those put off by the annoying commercials, give it a chance.


Sure, why not mention Black-ish for three posts in a row? Season 2 has just begun, and they've already tackled gun ownership and the N-word, so it's clear they're not losing their edge. Black-ish easily made my Top 5 list last year, and if they continue the streak they're on, they'll no doubt make it again.


I loved the first season of Heroes, but quit the show in disgust midway through Season 2, and given what I heard about what came afterwards, I made the right choice. Tim Kring and company are trying again with a reboot called Heroes Reborn, and I have to admit that morbid curiosity has pulled me back in. Curiosity only lasts so long, though, and the first couple of episodes displayed some of the problems that drove me away the first time. By the same token, they weren't half as bad as they could have been, so I'm going to cautiously stay invested for now. I maintain the right to bail at any moment, though.

There's also a curious new show named Angel From Hell, starring Jane Lynch as a guardian angel tasked with watching over Maggie Lawson. I like both actresses, and the show is from Tad Quill, who had a lot of success with Scrubs. All I know about the show is that Lynch's character is supposed to be kind of a mess, and not good at her guardian job. It's intriguing enough to look into, and I'm hoping for good things, despite the fact that it's on CBS, which isn't exactly known for their daring comedies.


Nothing. Go outside!


The Great British Bake Off has been going strong over in England for a while, but as far as these United States go, its import name, The Great British Baking Show just began Season 2. Season 1 got a rare A+ on this blog, so how could I not be in for another season? This is, bar none, the best reality show currently airing, and don't worry about making fun of me for saying that a British show airing on PBS has earned that honorific. I'll beat myself up later. After I watch this amazing show.


If you haven't been watching Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix, you need to begin immediately. It's been one of my favorite shows lately, and Season 3 just became available.

Maybe Catch Up Someday?

Fargo got a lot of great word-of-mouth last season, but I never got around to it, so there's no point diving into Season 2 just yet, but I hope to catch up with it at some point. The same goes for The Good Wife, which will be far more work, as it's going into Season 7. Jane the Virgin will be putting up its first season on Netflix soon, so it's clawed its way onto my list, though probably not in time for me to check out Season 2 just yet.

As far as new shows go, maybe I'll look into Blindspot if I trip over a pot of free time. And the new version of The Muppets has not been reviewed kindly, and I'd hate to taint my fondness for the franchise, so I may stay away from that one, but who knows? Maybe I'll wind up taking a peek at it. Or maybe I'll wander off to test a new chili recipe. Who would have ever though the glowing idiot box would lose its hypnotic power over me? Scary.

Small Plate #1: Cheese or Band Name

Four Courses Podcast

Sometimes, you may be peckish, but not have room for a full meal. And sometimes, you may want to enjoy your favorite podcast, Four Courses, but not have time to engage with a full episode. Good news!

Welcome to the first Four Courses Small Plate! Small Plates are mini-episodes that will periodically show up between main episodes, and can come in a wide variety of flavors: Maybe it’ll be a game. Maybe it’ll be an interview with a local chef. Maybe it’ll be a review of some food-related media. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely.

For this first small plate, guest host Jeffrey Ricker (from Episode 19) joins in for a game: Cheese or Band Name.

Think you can tell the difference between a rockin’ band and a regional Irish Cheddar? It might not be as easy as you think, Grasshopper. Play along with the game here, and see how you do! And if you have suggestions for other Small Plates, please feel free to email fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com

Race to the Top

One of the reasons I like Black-ish so much is its ability to have a real conversation about race issues, but never forgetting that it's a comedy first. I'm all for having serious discussions about difficult issues - and race relations are pretty much the textbook definition of "difficult issue" - but it can be far more effective to delve into those discussions through the lens of comedy than via some hectoring lecture.

While I wouldn't call Justin Simien's 2014 movie Dear White People a comedy in the laugh-out-loud sense, it definitely takes a very wry tone, so I was a lot more open to its messages. Dear White People is about a blossoming racial throwdown at a fictional Ivy League school. The administration has implemented a policy of mixing up the student dorms, which the black students (accurately) peg as a veiled effort to break up their house. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the leader of the effort to fight back, since she's already well known for her "Dear White People" campus radio show that takes on the casual racism (or at least racially-tinged) habits of her classmates.

That's not the only problem the black students are enduring, though. There's the boy who wants to build a powerful resume, and will modulate his personality to anything his audience needs him to be. There's the girl who is simultaneously embarrassed by and appreciative of the aping of black culture by white students. There's the boy whose homosexuality forces him into isolation from everyone, regardless of their race. All of these take place against the backdrop of the upcoming Halloween party that the exclusively-white humor magazine students are throwing. Care to guess the theme? Yeah, it's one of those ridiculous "Let Out Your Inner Black" parties where white students put on blackface and carry around fake guns.

This all sounds really dour, but Simien keeps the tone fairly light, even while discussing extremely serious issues. He also makes sure that there are layers to most of the characters, so that they're not just the mouthpiece for a single viewpoint. Those viewpoints certainly leak through, though. We all know the white girl who is overly proud of herself for associating with a black peer, and the black guy who plays the race card in irrelevant situations, but even the antagonists in this movie are given some relatable motivations.

If there's any problem with the movie, it's that it's not quite...a movie. It's more a collection of scenes built to have characters talk about these issues. And yes, it does slip into being too broad and a bit too didactic at times. On the whole, though, it was a really enjoyable movie that managed to address some really awkward themes in an entertaining way, and that is no small feat.

Dear White People: B+
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